The Pursuit of Knowledge in Carolingian Europe

The Pursuit of Knowledge in Carolingian Europe

By John J. Contreni

“The Gentle Voices of Teachers” Aspects of Learning in the Carolingian Age, edited by Richard Sullivan (Ohio State University Press, 1995)

O how sweet life was when we used to sit at leisure
amid the book boxes of a learned man, piles of books,
and the venerable thoughts of the Fathers; nothing
was missing that was needed for religious life and the
pursuit of knowledge. – Alcuin

Alcuin’s nostalgic lament, written by a worried master to a former pupil traveling in distant and pestilent Italy (Italiafirma), captures the essence of learning in the early Middle Ages. Written sometime between 793 and Alcuin’s death in 804, this touching portrait of the life of scholarship, with its emphasis on tranquility, close personal bonds between master and student, and communion with great minds, might have been written in any medieval century. But Alcuin was writing in the Carolingian century at a time when education and learning were being radically transformed.

Alcuin, an Anglo-Saxon born around 730 and educated at York, represents part of that transformation. Many like him who had been educated in the cathedral and monastic schools of England, Ireland, Spain, and Italy no doubt had been destined to replace their own masters. Instead, as adults they found themselves transplanted to the kingdoms of the Franks, where their learning, pedagogical skills, and books were put to a new task.  That task, the effort to harness the quiet pursuit of religious life and wisdom to broad social reform, forced Carolingian leaders to think about schooling and how it might be used to achieve their goals.

Two documents issued in the name of Charlemagne (ca. 742-814), one in March 789 and the other sometime during the 790s, might well be con­ sidered the manifestos of the Carolingian educational reform movement. The Admonitio generalis and the Epistola de litteris colendis, both of which bear the impress of Alcuin’s mind, provide good starting points for a foray into the world of Carolingian schools.

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